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Money Monster (2016)

moneymonster_posterJodie Foster hasn’t acted in a movie since 2013’s Elysium, and if you saw that movie you might have some sense why she’s taking time away. As a director, she has few film credits to her name, which makes each new Foster directing effort raise the question, “Why this one?” I would assume her last effort, 2011’s The Beaver, was her desire to work again with her Maverick co-star Mel Gibson and perhaps give him a career boost. Money Monster is a would-be hostage thriller with a socially conscience message about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street; however, the Bernie Sanders faithful, let alone anyone mildly educated on the excesses of Wall Street, will find this movie surely lacking, as will anyone looking for a competent and engaging thriller.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of Money Monster, a financial entertainment show where he provides stock tips to his loyal viewers. One day and angry man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), wanders onto the set brandishing a gun. He demands Lee strap on a bomb vest. Kyle lost his life savings on a bad stock tip and he demands justice. Lee agrees to hear the guy out and get to the bottom of why this stock dramatically fell of a cliff, which leads him to suspect internal manipulation from the CEO (Dominic West). Lee’s director Patty (Julia Roberts) stays put through the duress and remains the voice in his ear, coaching him to safety and running research to discover the truth.

george-clooney-and-jank-oconnell-filming-new-movie-money-monster-03While I was watching Money Monster I had to remind myself that this wannabe message movie existed in our reality, because the brunt of its ire against Wall Street criminal shenanigans is targeted specifically against one bad trader instead of the system. It’s like this movie exists before the 2008 financial meltdown, before the Oscar-winning movies Inside Job and The Big Short, but it doesn’t. It’s borderline insulting that the screenplay myopically focuses all of its attention on one bad actor and lets the rest of the Wall Street elite escape blameless for criminal misdeeds. The bulk of the movie after Kyle begins his hostage standoff is tracking down this bad trader and digging through archives to pin the blame for a stock fall on this guy, all the while keeping him away from the news so he doesn’t get suspicious. It’s a ludicrous turn of events that manages to take a big picture story with relevancy and find the smallest, most insignificant way to tell its tiny story. The condemnation should be for the system and not one guy, and not one character breaks from this preposterous thinking. It feels like they exist in a different time and place. If you didn’t know anything about Wall Street before this movie you would still be left clueless. Is there supposed to be a happy ending when they bring this guy to justice? The movie sets up an ending that doesn’t exactly feel like anyone learned a lesson or even that the villain was properly punished (oh no, he suffers the scorn of Internet memes!). The final line is so glib and self-satisfied that I groaned. By the end of Money Monster I was wondering what any character had learned from the experience except, maybe, to have better locks on the studio doors.

The other debilitating problem is that Money Monster is a movie that cannot find a character for you to care about. The setup should be so obvious and elicit audience sympathy and a natural underdog to root for against a corrupt system. Instead Kyle is a moron. First off he invests all of his money into one single stock based upon one tip from Lee’s TV show. That’s a pretty big risk. Next he takes hostages and makes demands, and yet none of those demands are for the return of his money but rather a simple apology. There’s also the fact that he’s more a ranting and raving angry lunatic than somebody who has targeted ire against the body of Wall Street, making for a pretty uninteresting hostage scenario. You also have to factor in that there will be no good outcome for Kyle, and so he’ll be leaving his girlfriend and unborn child left to fend for themselves after he blew away all their money on a bad gamble. This is not a sympathetic character nor is he rendered in a fashion to make him that interesting. He’s an angry and impulsive man whose actions are almost always about himself and his sense of being wronged. The other two primary characters, Lee and Patty, are completely absent personalities beyond staying cool under pressure. If you put a gun to my head I would not be able to tell you anything about either of those characters as people. Lee doesn’t seem to go through any sort of introspection over his own culpability with his TV show, and Patty is so laser focused on the problem at hand that we know nothing about her other than her capability. Spending 90 minutes with this trio of lackluster characters is a waste of 90 minutes.

money-monster-julia-robertsDespite the brisk pacing, I was bored mercilessly with Money Monster. I just didn’t care and Foster and company gave me no reason to care. The pacing made it hard to develop these characters; they felt like chess pieces being randomly assembled across a board, moved when the plot required it, and inert without these manipulations. When the movie goes outside is another example of nothing feelings believable. The will-he-be-shot suspense sequences are hackneyed and dumb. There are a couple of moments of solid comic relief at the expense of character egos, with Emily Meade (That Awkward Moment) serving as the highlight of an otherwise monstrously mediocre movie. Here is a list of other actors that are wasted in do-nothing parts: Caitriona Balfe (TV’s Outlander), Giancarlo Esposito (TV’s Breaking Bad), Christopher Denham (Argo), Lenny Venito (TV’s The Sopranos), and Chris Bauer (TV’s True Blood).

Money Monster is a disappointment in just about every stripe, from its perfunctory performances from it’s a-level movie stars, to the development of its characters, from its suspense sequences, and especially from its frustrating and laughably short-sighted vilification of Wall Street misdeeds on one culprit. It’s like this movie was pulled from a time capsule from the 1990s. Foster’s direction is perfectly acceptable though indistinct from any other journeyman. I cannot say what attracted her to this project as a director except for the opportunity to work with Clooney and Roberts. Otherwise, Money Monster is a thriller that keeps butting heads against reality, reminding the audience at every turn of its airless artificiality and stark superficiality.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Elysium (2013)

elysium-firstposter-full2With the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, Elysium is a sci-fi action movie with more on its mind than pyrotechnics. It’s writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s out-of-nowhere hit, District 9, a film so good that the Academy even nominated it for Best Picture that year, a rarity for a sci-fi flick. The apartheid allegory of District 9 was pretty straightforward, but Blomkamp and company found inspiring and fresh ways to tell a rousing story that worked in tandem with its social commentary. Elysium takes the haves and have nots to an admitted extreme.

IIn 2153, the rich have left Earth for a floating space station known as Elysium. It’s a luxurious paradise where technology can miraculously zap people to complete health. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is in charge of Homeland Security and protecting Elysium from the less desirables that want to break in. Those “less desirables” would be the inhabitants of Earth. The planet has become an overcrowded, dirty, impoverished slum; Earth as third world. Max (Matt Damon) is an excon working a factory line for a sneering corporate bigwig (William Fichtner) struggling to leave behind a life of crime. His childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), works as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s got her own worries, namely a terminally ill daughter. After an accident at work blasts Max with radiation, he has five days to live. If he can just make it to Elysium, he can be cured. The problem is that Delacourt is shooting down spaceships trying to land on Elysium, including ones filled with women and children. To get off planet, Max needs to help in a heist, but it’s prized codes that could lower the defenses of Elysium and make anyone (ANYONE!) a citizen, thus available for medical treatment. To make sure this doesn’t happen, Delacourt relies on a rogue mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a crazed madman who leaps at the chance to do dirty work. The hunt is on for Max.

94576_galThe socio-political commentary isn’t terribly veiled here, and maybe that’s because now Blomkamp has bigger targets than South Africa’s governmental policy. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that the inhabitants of luxury are portrayed as all white and that the denizens of the impoverished Earth are mostly non-white minorities (if minorities dominate a future Earth, when do they become majorities?). It’s clear that Blomkamp intends for Elysium to represent the United States. The poor who break through into the Promised Land, many to give their children a better life, or a life at all, only to be deported back to a slum, are clear stand-ins for contemporary immigration, notably Latin America. This is all fine by my book, though I can already hear the persecuted cries of some conservative commentators. It’s not as refined a commentary and that’s fine, not every message needs to be subtle, but I want more with my message than a simple rich vs. poor allusion. We never get to see what the people of Elysium are like, nor what most of that world is like beyond wide idyllic imagery. Fichtner’s character does a good job of symbolizing the callousness of an elite, but then he’s just one guy. The difficulty of maintaining a working wage is given the most care in the film, but much of the higher thinking takes a backseat for the third act movie heroics. The shift is acceptable but it makes a thin development of socio-economic commentary that much thinner.

When it comes to action, Blomkamp certainly knows how to stage a scene to get your pulse racing. The only problem is that there isn’t terribly much action to Elysium, or at least methodically sustained action to satisfy. You always feel like you’re getting a taste of something cooler down the road but it never fully materializes, much like the exoskeleton suit. It looks cool, it provides some progression, but it doesn’t lead to much. What does it accomplish? It allows him a port into downloading the Elyisum codes, but so could anything else. If anything, the metal exoskeleton seems like more of a hindrance, dragging Max down with extra weight and bulk. It pains me to say that the cool exoskeleton, such a prominent marketing feature, could have easily been eliminated as well. The best action in the movie is a heist in the middle that manages to juggle a team of good guys, a team of bad guys, a mark, and a deep sense of urgency for the score. It’s terrific and makes fun use of Blomkamp’s inventive future weapons. The rest of the film is mostly a series of chases, many of which are well orchestrated but only flirt with long-lasting action satisfaction.

The third act on Elysium is an entertaining and noisy conclusion, except Blomkamp sets himself up for limitation. Some spoilers to follow so tread carefully, reader. Elysium gets taken over by Kruger and his team as a defacto coup… except, well there are only three of them. We don’t even get to see them train the robot sentries on enemies or the populace of Elysium. I really don’t know how far-reaching their hastily staged coup is going. We want Kruger to be the big baddie that Max has to fight right before the cusp of the climax, but when there are only two other dudes who aren’t making great use of their fancy resources, it feels too boxed in and restrained. The action is fun while it lasts.

101212_galAnother niggling concern is the glut of side characters and their side stories that don’t feel organically integrated into the hero’s story. The flashbacks to Max as a kid could have been completely wiped out. They don’t add more information to the story and feel a tad too hokey for the movie. Sister Saintly Nun espouses wisdom and promises Max will be destined for one great thing in the future (could I settle for two “kinda good” things?).  The bigger distraction is Frey and her sick kid, a.k.a. the Angelic Sick Child, you know, the type that feels so at peace with things and with no worry. This is a staple of the movies. Her only purpose in the narrative is to goad Max into making a bigger sacrifice, to think of others, not that beforehand the guy was displayed as being particularly selfish. Then there’s Max’s friend Julio (Diego Luna) who serves little purpose other than to carry him out of the occasional scene and to, of course, be sacrificed to drive the hero forward to achieve his goal. There’s a middleman who arranges for people to get identities that will be read on Elysium, if they get on there safely first. The villains are also pretty one-dimensional in their stock villainy: Kruger a sociopathic killing machine and Delacourt a tyrant. None of these characters leave much of an impression to make you want to take time away from the main story arc. Worse, many of them feel vaguely characterized and are clear plot beat generators rather than people. Maybe Max would be better off as a loner.

The acting is also all over the place. The worst offender is Foster (Carnage), who weirdly over enunciates every syllable in an affected future accent. She also seems to bob and swivel her head a lot as she talks, as if the Oscar-winning actress really had to go to the bathroom but was holding it at bay to complete her takes. Damon (Promised Land) is a reliable action hero but realistically, it’s a little curious that the main character would be, by all accounts, white. It makes much more sense for the savior of planet Earth to be like those left behind, but then I don’t really want to wade into deeper racial subtext than necessary. The real treat of the movie is Copley (The A-Team) who is having a ball playing a sword-wielding psycho killer. He provides a notable spark whenever onscreen, bringing a menace that makes you tale notice. Again, I just wish there was more to the character than his vague back-story and bunt motivations.

Despite what has seemed like a fairly negative review from the start, Elysium still a good movie but beware higher expectations forged from District 9’s unique alchemy. There are a lot of familiar plot beats here and everything from the characters, to the action, to the world building feels like it could have been pushed further. It feels like they took the freshness of District 9 and applied it to a more tired-and-true blockbuster formula. Blomkamp drops us into an intriguing world but I wanted more of just about everything. More with the characters, more with the plot, more with the socio-political commentary, more with the ins and outs of this future world and its inhabitants. The ending is also a bit jubilantly naïve given the powers of the Powers That Be. Really, a keystroke sets everything back to scratch. Again, I’m being more critical than I intend to be. Elysium is quite an entertaining movie with great visuals and Blompkamp is certainly a visionary auteur to praise, but it’s hard not to feel a smidge of disappointment with the man when you know what he’s capable of, even with a perfectly fine movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Beaver (2011)

Eerily mirroring his real-life public breakdown, Mel Gibson stars in The Beaver as Walter Black, a man crippled by depression who finds a therapeutic outlet via animal puppet. The beaver is a puppet that Walter chooses to speak through, albeit in a cockney Brit accent that sounds faintly like Ray Winstone (The Departed). Given this twee premise, you’d expect plenty of laughs, but under the prosaic direction of Jodie Foster, also starring as Black’s anguished wife, the movie comes off like a stupefying heart-tugger, a sub-American Beauty style in suburban mawkishness. The comedy and drama elements don’t gel at all, and The Beaver is too tonally disjointed to settle down. Gibson gives a strong performance as a man battling his demons, and the subject matter of mental illness is thankfully treated with respect despite the fantastical premise. It’s the extraneous moments outside the beaver that help to detract and distract. The story of Walter’s son (Anton Yelchin) worrying that he’s already showing signs of mental illness, doomed to end up like the father he hates, is a palpable storyline. But writer Kyle Killen sums up this dilemma with clumsy brevity, having the son jot down post-it notes of behavior he has in common with dad, behavior to be eliminated. The entire subplot involving the son romancing the school Valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence, sunny and beautiful as always), a pretty gal troubled with grief, never feels authentic. That’s the problem with The Beaver; too much feels inauthentic to be dramatic and it’s too subdued and brusque to be dark comedy. It’s like the strangest public therapy session ever for a fading star.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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